March Madness, one of America’s favorite annual sporting events, tips off March 19.
We hope for three weeks of buzzer beaters, nail-biters, and bracket busters as teams try to reach the Final Four in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome April 6-8.
If this season’s tournament holds true to form from previous NCAA championships played in years that end with a “three” it should be quite the treat. Like a game of Three-Card Monte, you never know what is going to turn up, and since the tourney began back in 1939, those “3″ years have provided some memorable moments.
1943 – Champion vs. Champion
In only its fifth year, the NCAA championship still played second-fiddle to the slightly older (by one year) National Invitational Tournament (NIT), which had a stronger East Coast presence, received more media coverage, and played at its permanent home in already fabled Madison Square Garden in New York City. Wyoming won an eight-team NCAA tournament by beating Oklahoma and Kansas in the West bracket (the tournament only had East and West brackets) in Kansas City, Missouri. The Cowboys then traveled to Manhattan and defeated Georgetown 46-34 in the finals at Madison Square. Star for the Cowboys was guard Ken Sailors, a early pioneer of the jump shot, but the most famous player in the tournament was George Mikan, one of the game’s first true big men; his DePaul squad lost in the semifinals to Georgetown.
The NCAA event got less attention than hometown St. John’s taking the NIT crown behind legendary coach Joe Lapchick. Two days later, in what may be the only time this happened, the champions of the two post-season tournaments played a charity game at Madison Square Garden to benefit the Red Cross war effort in front of 18,000 fans. The Cowboys downed the Redmen 52-47 in overtime, a precursor to the NCAA overtaking the NIT in prestige and power.
1953 – The Hurryin’ Hoosiers
The 1953 NCAA championship matched two of the sports titans, Indiana and defending champion Kansas, at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.
Seeds for the Hoosier title run were planted a season earlier when the NCAA temporarily suspended the freshman eligibility rule due to the military draft for the Korean War (freshmen, ineligible for varsity competition in football and basketball until 1972, were allowed to play in 1951-52). The relaxation of that restriction freed up “the Ox.” Big Don “Ox” Schlundt, a 6’10 post player from South Bend, played as a freshman in 1952, averaging 17 points, and would go on to become the most prolific scorer in Indiana and Big Ten history to that point, a three-time All-American, and the vital cog of the 1953 NCAA champs. He still holds the record for average points per game for a career at Indiana (23 ppg). Schlundt teamed with Bob “Slick” Leonard, a feisty guard and future ABA and NBA head coach (he would lead the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles), and forward Dick Farley. They all played for the great Branch McCracken, a Hall of Famer who led the Hoosiers to championships in 1940 and 1953 (both times defeating Kansas and Phog Allen).
The game went to the wire and was very contentious. Played in front of a pro-Kansas crowd (the game was played just about 40 miles from the KU campus), McCracken and the Hoosiers were incensed when Jayhawk star center B.J. Born was allowed to return to the game after receiving what was reported as his fifth foul. McCracken and Allen both argued at the scorer’s table. Slick Leonard converted a free throw with less than 30 seconds remaining, Kansas played for the final shot, but a desperate shot at the buzzer was off target. Indiana won 69-68.
That 1953 Final Four was a “Who’s Who” of mid-20th century basketball. Kansas coach Phog Allen ruled the sidelines in Lawrence for nearly 50 years, and actually played under the inventor of basketball – James Naismith. Dean Smith played on the 1952 Jayhawk team that won the championship and the ’53 squad that lost to Indiana. Smith would go on to win more games than any college basketball coach (a record since surpassed by Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski). Kansas whipped Oklahoma A&M (now OK State) in one semifinal … the Cowboys were coached by Hank Iba, who won 751 games himself and coached three U.S. Olympics teams. In the other semi, Indiana beat LSU and the great scoring forward Bob Pettit, considered the nation’s best player and a future NBA all-star and Hall of Fame inductee.
1963 – Ramblin Fever
The Ramblers of Loyola University won the 1963 championship in an NCAA tournament with racial overtones and historical implications.
Loyola whipped two-time defending champ Cincinnati 60-58 in the finals at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. That victory alone was historic. Coach Ed Jucker’s Bearcats were trying to become the first team to win three NCAA titles in a row and were playing in a fourth straight Final Four. This would also be the last season before John Wooden’s UCLA championship run. From 1964-1975, the Bruins would win ten of twelve championships including seven in a row at one point.
Before reaching the finals, Loyola played a second-round game against Mississippi State of the SEC. The Bulldogs of coach Babe McCarthy and star Bailey Howell had been kept out of the tournament three of the past four seasons because of unwritten, but typically unbroken, racial codes that prohibited white Mississippi teams from playing against integrated competition (as the Bulldogs surely would in the NCAAs). This time McCarthy and the team pulled a ruse and essentially snuck out of the state to make the trip to play the NCAA game in East Lansing at the home court of Michigan State (Miss State got a bye in the first round; the game was Loyola’s second round match). In a well-played, respectful game, the Ramblers beat the Bulldogs 61-51 to advance.
The championship game against Cincy was a thriller. In overtime, Loyola’s Vic Rouse tipped in a missed shot just as the horn sounded and the Ramblers had a championship. Rouse and Jerry Harness (Loyola’s star) were two of four African Americans to start for the Ramblers … the Bearcats sent out another three as starters, marking the first time a majority of starters in an NCAA final were African American. By the way, Rouse hailed from Pearl High School in Nashville, Tennessee, where he might have run into young Perry Wallace, who would go on to desegregate basketball in the SEC when he played at Vanderbilt from 1966-1969.
1973 – The Streak
The 1973 Final Four at St. Louis Arena, featured the man who’d already won more NCAA national championships than any other coach (John Wooden of UCLA), the man who would succeed him in Westwood (Gene Bartow of Memphis State), a brilliant and fiery young coach in his second season at Indiana who would go on to win three titles and more games than any coach in history (a total since surpassed by his top protégé) (Bobby Knight), and a gentleman from the East who would be the driving force behind the formation of the most successful basketball conference in America within a decade (Dave Gavitt). What a collection of coaching talent.
A big story before the tournament was one team that couldn’t play. North Carolina State, coached by Norm Sloan and starring the leaping legend David Thompson, 7’2 center Tom Burleson, and fireplug point guard Monte Towe, marched through an unbeaten 25-0 regular season then won two games and the ACC tournament. However, the school was on probation and ineligible for national post-season competition. The Wolfpack would be heard from a year later.
Wooden’s UCLA squad, led by the incomparable Big Redhead Bill Walton, won a seventh consecutive NCAA championship by beating Knight’s Hoosiers in the semifinals and Bartow’s Tigers in the finals. The championship game was played on Monday night for the first time, starting a new tradition in American sport that endures today. The Bruins, in the midst of a winning streak that would eventually stretch to 88 games, were never seriously challenged in the tournament, winning four times by an average of 16 points. The title was Wooden’s ninth and the UCLA dynasty was at its zenith.
That championship would be Wooden’s next-to-last. The long winning streak would end in 1974 in a regular season loss at Notre Dame, and when the Bruins lost back-to-back games later in the season to Oregon and Oregon State, the tiniest of cracks first appeared in the dynasty. Still, the Bruins made it to yet another Final Four in 1974, but lost a double-overtime semi-final classic to N.C. State. The Wolfpack would go on to take the title and erase the empty memories of 1973.
“The Wizard of Westwood” had a final charge left in him. His relatively unheralded 1975 team closed out Wooden’s career by winning the 1975 NCAA championship, the tenth in twelve seasons. It is a record that will not be matched.
1983 – Jimmy the Jester
When the basketball world descended on the desert for the 1983 Final Four at The Pit in Albuquerque, a coronation was supposed to take place. Or perhaps an induction ceremony. The brothers of Phi Slamma Jamma, the Houston Cougar’s coolest, quickest, baddest, and most exclusive fraternity was going to soar up and over powerful Louisville and upstarts Georgia and N.C. State to take the NCAA championship. Instead, a jester of the court slipped in and stole the crown.
One of the most storied Final Fours in the tournament’s history started with a workmanlike win by State over Georgia in the first semifinal game. That game figured to simply be the stage-setter for a dunk contest between Houston’s fly boys of Phi and the Doctors of Dunk from Louisville. The second semi-final lived to its billing as one of the most exciting games in tournament annals. The Cougars, featuring Akeem “the Dream” Olajuwon (he changed to Hakeem later), Clyde “the Glide” Drexler, and Benny “the Jet” Anders (they had the best nicknames too!), raced past a Louisville squad that included Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, Rodney and Scooter McCray, Flash Gordon, and Charles Jones. The final was 94-81 and most thought the championship game had already been played when the show ended.
Jim Valvano of N.C. State had other plans. His Wolfpack used a controlled offense, played behind the Cougars on defense to limit their dunk opportunities (the Pack chanted “One Slamma Jamma” after the game in reference to the number of stuffs allowed to Houston in the title game), fouled and fouled the notoriously poor free-throwing shooting Cougars, and finally received a gift from Houston coach Guy Lewis inexplicably put his team into a spread delay with about 10 minutes to go in the game.
The game ended with a famous dunk, but it was by State’s Lorenzo Charles who caught a last-second desperation air-ball from Dereck Whittenburg and stuffed it through at the buzzer. State won 54-52, and Valvano scurried across the court looking for somebody to hug. The jester had stolen the crown.
1993 – Flub Five
Michigan’s Fab Five exploded onto the college basketball scene during the 1992 tournament. Wearing black socks and black shoes, the freshmen quintet strutted and smack-talked all the way to the finals before getting pasted by Duke 71-51. The next season, they stormed to the finals at the Superdome to meet another team from the ACC … this time the North Carolina Tar Heels and venerable coach Dean Smith.
The Final Four was basketball royalty. North Carolina knocked off Kansas in one semifinal, and Michigan took care of Kentucky in the other. It set the stage for a contrasting matchup on Monday night.
The Heels were the antithesis of the Wolverines in the eyes of the public. Smith’s system called for players to point at a teammate after a good pass, to subjugate individuality to the team, to never show up an opponent. Even the great Michael Jordan bought into the Tar Heel way, and on the Superdome court eleven years earlier he had clinched the beloved Smith’s first championship with a late jump shot.
The Fab Five showed little respect to anybody. Their attitude reflected (at least in their own eyes and those of some social commentators) the breakthrough of hip hop culture into the mainstream of America society. With their sagging shorts and in-your-face on-court personality, the Wolverines embraced the bad guy persona.
It was quite a contrast.
In the end, the system won and the upstarts again folded under the pressure of the finals.
The most infamous play came late in the game. Chris Webber, the most talented and vocal of the Fab Five got flustered when double-teamed and called a timeout even though the Wolverines had none left. The resulting technical sealed the 77-71 victory.
Dean Smith would go on to become the first Division I men’s coach to win over 800 games and the 1993 championship would be his last. The Fab Five never won a title and ended up vacating the entire 1992-93 season due to NCAA violations.
2003 – Cupcake
Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is a great coach. He has taken the Orangemen to the post-season every one of his 34 years at the helm except 1993 when the school was ineligible. He has never had a losing season, and has won more games at one school than any other D-I men’s coach. He trails only Coach K of Duke in total wins and may surpass him depending on who holds off retirement the longest.
Still, for much of his early career coaching the Orangemen, Boeheim’s schedules were ridiculed for being soft … filled with easy opponents … cupcakes so to speak. That sentiment seemed to always bear out come NCAA tourney time when the Cuse could never quite get over the hump to win a national title. Trips to the championship game in 1987 (loss to Indiana) and 1996 (loss to Kentucky) only provided more fuel to detractors.
Finally, back in New Orleans at the site of that excruciating 1987 last-second loss to Indiana and Bobby Knight, Boeheim got his championship. Carmelo Anthony, only a freshman, earned outstanding player honors as the Orange overcame a strong Kansas team 81-78 in the finals.
2013 – ???
There are a lot of story lines for the 2013 version of March Madness. Can Syracuse or Louisville claim a title for the Big East in its last year as currently comprised? Will the powerful Big Ten lineup of Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and the like take a championship back to middle America? Will Coach K further stake his claim as greatest coach since Wooden (and perhaps of all time) by winning a fifth championship at Duke? Can one of the upstart mid-majors like Butler or Gonzaga grab the crown?
Tune in the next three weeks for one of America’s great sporting spectacles.
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